The Didactic Selection, Part II: under the flor

Part II of the Cuatrogatos Wine Club Didactic Selection of Vinos Galacticos y Didacticos: la Charanga, la Choza, la Maruja, Camborio (or the special bottling thereof by Mr Alex Jules), Blanquito, Origen and el Cerro.

Galacticos because they are all world class and Didacticos because they all tell a story that I believe is relevant to understanding Jerez as it is today. That they all come from small independent and pretty likeable producers is also a big part of it – the official history this is not.

Part I was top class – two lovely palomino wines that went down a treat – but with a bit of luck you still have a glass or two of those to sup alongside these two lads in Part II as we explore under the flor.

By that I mean two examples of biological ageing: ageing of a wine under the veil of flor. Probably the most distinctive single feature of winemaking in Jerez (and, let’s be fair, a number of other less famous regions), biological ageing is where butts are left two thirds full (or more, but with at least a bit of a gap between wind and water) so that the native yeasts of the region – and particularly the saccaromyces beticus that thrives in Sanlucar and the montuliensis up in Jerez – form a living, lipid barrier on the surface of the wine.

That barrier protects the wine from oxidation but does so much more: the flor eats away at the sugar, alcohol and glycerol in the wine, making it dryer, sleeker, finer and sharper, exposing its saline and mineral skeleton, and in return juicing it up with the acetaldehyde output of its synthesis. New flavours and aromas develop – all yeasty bakery, chamomile and nuts – and the already more white fruit and herbal than average flavours of the palomino are sharpened and concentrated into really punchy, compact profiles.

And that isn’t all, because the flor, a tiny organism that lives on the surface of a butt of wine, well, it came for a good time, not a long time. It lives fast, on alcohol, sugar and glycerol, and dies (predictably) young. When it does, it falls to the bottom of the butt where it finally settles down and gently decomposes, creating what we call the “cabezuelas” – a kind of elephants graveyard of rockstar flor molecules that pretty much does the job of the lees in less interesting wines. The cabezuelas give the wines body and structure, from a slippy oil in the younger wines to a thick buttery mouthfeel in the wines that have been a while in the barrel. It is an often overlooked but very important factor in the winemaking of Jerez.

But anyway, enough with the intro already, here we have two top class examples of what a lipid can do when it puts its mind to it: a manzanilla de Sanlucar and a fino de Jerez (or is it?)

First up is La Maruja, a manzanilla de Sanlucar. (Maybe it is an appropriate moment to remind everyone that only wines “criados” in Sanlucar can be called manzanilla – a name derived from the characteristic chamomile aromas of the wines in the olden days, when the wines of Jerez and Sanlucar were probably more distinct than they are today.) This is wine that has been produced over around 8-9 years in a solera with 8 “classes” (what the bodegas in Jerez call a criadera) – young wine and vigorous flor at the top, and you can guess what happens as they blend their way down to the solera.

The result is a wine that when compared to the white wines is noticeably more aromatic (that acetaldehyde), sharper and zingier from the salinity, more pungent on the palate and fresher, more mouthwatering on the finish (again from the salinity). This one is no relation to the white wines in vineyard terms – all the wine these days comes from Pago del Hornillo in Sanlucar – and of course it is probably at least 8 years older on average (while it cannot have a vintage, the label on mine tells me it was drawn in June 2019 (the L number tells you year and day – 19174 is June 23, 2019)) but still you can see the similarities and the differences and get an appreciation for the magic of the flor.

That aromatic nose, zingy start and fresh finish are what make manzanilla such a famous aperitif of course but there is so much more to this wine – for a start it has had much more than the mandatory three years of crianza and the concentration of flavours and the body and depth speak to a much older, more serious wine.

The first of the similarities with its brother in arms in this Part II: the fino en rama Camborio, a 10 year old wine from a saca also in June 2019.

Now Camborio as a wine has a fair bit of history, some of it pretty recent. This is the name of the wine that was made by Juan Piñero in a solera and bodega at Calle San Francisco Javier in Jerez until a couple of years ago, when said bodega and solera were acquired by no less a winemaker than the legendary Peter Sisseck, who picked it up together with his long time partner in Spain Carlos del Rio as the foundation of what is one of the most exciting projects in Jerez – Bodegas y Viñedos Balbainas. The new owners of the solera and bodega didn’t acquire the brand and probably didn’t count on the existing management taking 5,000 litres of the wine with them to create a new solera elsewhere (not that they were concerned – their interest in the solera, fascinatingly, was in those under rated cabezuelas) and so the Camborio really never went away, with these new sacas resurfacing in 2019.

So this wine is not the magical stuff from 2016 or 2017, but it is a pretty remarkable effort, with the solera built up again with wine sourced from some top producers. Neither is it, strictly speaking, a “fino de Jerez” but rather something altogether more remarkable – a fino de Sanlucar (and therefore should be your first choice in Bar La Manzanilla in Jerez).

And what about the contrast with the manzanilla? The difference in structure and concentration is impressive. In part that is a function of how these wines are made. Whereas the manzanilla hot foots it through eight classes in eight years and is bottled 8 or 9 times per annum, the Camborio takes a full decade to dawdle through three criaderas to the solera, where it mooches about before being bottled twice a year. Different strains of flor are at play too – a beticus is a sprinter, this requires the stately montuliensis. And of course the wine is different – here we have some wine from pago Añina and a lot from pago Macharnudo – higher altitude, higher concentration pagos that Hornillo.

But good grief it is a great wine – so concentrated, so serious on the nose, so saline, so sizzling on the salt and pepper finish. The thing is a beast. Gone are the high, sweet notes of la Choza – the structure is there but it has gone down in register and up in bite. A verse of Lorca springs to mind – “Camborio de dura crin” – top stuff.

And the fourth dimension, once again, comes from the people behind the wines. Here we have a single name: Juan Piñero, again a small producer but one who has built up a sensational range of wines of a very high class. La Maruja is 8/9 years old and if you like it trust me you will not believe la Maruja Pasada – one of the truly great wines. As for Camborio, well not much to add to the above, and on top of these there are some old old wines – including a cream – that deserve some serious attention. And I probably don’t need to tell you who advises the bodega on winemaking matters – there was a clue in Part I.

And here endeth lesson II – my iphone is out of battery and a siesta beckons. Hope you are enjoying these wines as much as I am – I can’t wait for lesson three.

Callejuela Manzanillas de Añada 2015 – all three

In current circumstances if you are after a hat trick you could do worse than come to undertheflor.com – a fella is fair punishing the bottlebank lately. And never in a better cause than here, with these three single vineyard (Callejuela, Añina and Macharnudo, respectively) and single vintage manzanillas by two of the bright lights of the “Cherrirevolooshun”: the Blanco Brothers of Viña Callejuela.

And I don’t say that lightly – the half dozen occasional readers of this blog may have observed seen the name Callejuela associated with the very first single vintage manzanilla that hoved into view, the now legendary 2012. That one was from the Callejuela vineyard itself but a seed was planted. It was followed by the manzanilla en rama from the same vineyard – a bigger boned cracker – and then by the single vineyard wines from Callejuela, Añina and Macharnudo – also three little beauties.

But these are probably the best of the lot so far. Zippy manzanillas – and there is no doubting their profile wherever the grapes come from – with the added elegance of single vintage wines and just enough fruit still in them to lift them above your standard manzanilla profile.

They were harvested in 2015 and bottled in May, 2019, which would put them in the ballpark of Volume II of the 2012 manzanilla in terms of development in bota, but in addition they have the added dimension of the different vineyards.

Because they couldn’t be more different. Since I have been working on these three bottles I have changed my mind half a dozen times as to which is my favourite – although almost certainly between the Callejuela and the Añina.

Callejuela is Sanlúcar of course and is stylistically the most familiar manzanilla – but this version is just about as good as it gets -zingy, concentrated chamomile. Añina is a Jerez pago, but one of the favoured pagos of the manzanilla men, and while it doesn’t seem as compact as the Callejuela it is more floral and has that little bit of hazelnut deliciousness. The Macharnudo was my favourite of the white wines and there is no doubt it has a bit of beast about it, with a really piercing aroma and zingy back end – but maybe doesn’t quite hold up in the middle like the other two.

So Callejuela it is, or maybe Añina. Frankly, you should get all three because the only thing wrong with them is that the bottle is too small.

Solear en rama Saca de Invierno 2019 – the Ruddy Shelduck

Reacquainted with these recently and after a Wednesday night dominated by Jerez lunch on Thursday kicked off with a tribute to the finest of Sanlucar (and Doñana). Adorned on this occasion by the Ruddy Shelduck, a rare sight in Andalucia and considered sacred by the hindus.

This solera should probably be considered sacred by everyone. One of the consistently excellent wines from Sanlúcar this was in fact the first glass from a magnum in Angelita Madrid and it was a beauty.

The intensity of minerals and salad greenery in this wine always take me back – it seems so biological in every sense it must be good value for at least two of your five a day. From a recent bottling these wines have real zip up front a salty, peppery finish that really invites another glass, and another, etc

A classic manzanilla, complex as you like but fresh and full of life.  

Manzanilla de Añada 2012 Callejuela, 5/11

The 2012 manzanilla de añada was one of the very first wines to really open my eyes to what is possible down in Jerez and Sanlucar. 11 botas set aside from a single vineyard and añada, left to age statically under flor (as long as it lasts).

The wines are a vivid expression of the effects of static biological and barrel ageing on a manzanilla. The first was a protomanzanilla, more wine than manzanilla, but since then the wines have become finer, with a deeper mineral groove. Over time the flor is losing its vigour, the cabezuelas are beginning to gather, and the wines are becoming richer and fatter. In time future releases will begin to lose that veil and will take on the toasted rust of amontillados. By then the wines will also be a vivid expression of the effects of bottle ageing (at least the ones I have managed to stash away will be).

For the time being this latest chip off the historic block is a beast of a full flavoured manzanilla. Lovely dark hay colour, a lot of haybales about and a big spikey, zingy mouthful, with bakery favours of toasted almonds and roast apple in there before a long old finish.

Cracking manzanilla in its own terms but part of something that is so much bigger. If all history tasted as good as this we would be repeating it more than twice.

Solear en rama – Saca de Primavera 2018 – the Gullheaded Tern

Have a big collection of these little bottles and am strongly considering a bit of a clear out – if I could find time to see them all away at once I would but I will likely have to pick them off in some small groups. Not yet, though, because this was one that I had two of so could tuck into, without any guilt and with a massive dollop of pleasure.

It really is one of the top wines from Sanlucar, from Jerez, from anywhere. Has that musky haybale aroma and overlying, underlying flavour, sea breeze and almonds, stinging salinity on the lips, and after nearly two years in the bottle (bit less) this one has a nice touch of oxidation – almost raisiny to begin with.

Really love these. Maybe will have to hold onto them after all – can always buy a bigger house …

A 2017 manzanilla La Jaca in Taberna Verdejo

Whereas I tend to pull faces when I get given really old wines I have no problem with the occasional manzanilla with a couple of years in the bottle. They get that touch of oxidation but remain very fine – no inclination towards the potency of a manzanilla pasada but a little bit of the flavour.

This one, a half bottle of La Jaca that had been filled in June 2017, was no exception to the rule. Still fragrant on the nose, but a little bit of old fruit in there with the chamomile, like one of those fruit teas, but wheras the fruit teas always smell better than they taste, this was just fine on the palate. Still fresh and zingy, had a nice dry, nutty palate and if not quite a hint of toffee maybe just a suggestion of nougat.

Very nice little wine, and absolutely at home in what is surely the loveliest little tavern in town.

Solear en Rama Primavera 2019 in Bache

Bache is a great spot for a quick lunch with a cracking list of sherries and some quality, fun solids to accompany them.

This is an absolute gem – for me at the same time the definition and archetype of a manzanilla and quite unique.

Old gold colour, crystal clear but consistent, fragrant on the nose with dried beach grass and yeast and zingy and juicy on the palate. It has been a while since I have had one of these but this has all the biological, incisive character of the spring sacas I remember.

I believe it is 20 years now that they have been producing these. 80 sacas of pure class. Happy Anniversary guys!

Manzanilla Carvajal

Very nice drop of manzanilla here – a special selection sourced by Jaime Carvajal, an up and coming young marquista, from wine made by Delgado Zuleta. Jaime was for many years Gonzalez Byass’ man in the province of Cadiz and now has a nice portfolio of wines including Cobijado and the palo cortado from Cayetano del Pino, amongst others.

Nice old gold colour as you can see – tablecloth notwithstanding – and a lovely nose on it with classic haybales and sea breeze and just a hint of spicey herbal tea. Then on the palate it has zingy salinity, a full flavour with just a touch of bitterness and oxidation and a full, buttery texture.

Top manzanilla – very nice indeed.

La Bota 93 de manzanilla – “Navazos”

Equipo Navazos release some class wines and this manzanilla is always one of them. A new bottling from the same botas that gave us the illustrious Bota 71 – and which I guess are botas acquired in 2007 from the cellars home to the famous La Guita.

As soon as you pour a glass you know this is an altogether richer wine than La Guita – a gorgeous old gold colour – and at the same time wonderfully aromatic, with lots of haybales and the archetypal chamomile. I remember first smelling the 71 from almost across the room at a social gathering and this one takes me back to that moment.

That chalky Miraflores character is very much in evidence on the palate, but here overlaid with the good juice: yeast, zingy salinity and sweet herbal tea.

An excellent manzanilla and a real blockbuster of a wine.

Manzanilla Predilecta

Full disclosure: this wine is distributed here in Madrid by a good friend of mine and not only that but he gave me this bottle.

So feel free to take it with a pinch of salt when I tell you it is a cracking good little manzanilla. Floral, with plenty of the archetypal chamomile on the nose, and serious on the palate, with a whiff of white fruit backed up by a knitting needle of saline heat and grapefruit and a long, warm, lingering and mouthwatering finish. At the flowery, juicy end of the scale.

But of course you cannot in all conscience rely on the objectivity of this review so I suggest you get out and buy some.